Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Wisconsin Resists Clean Energy

State lags the Midwest in renewable energy, yet suddenly making great progress.

By - Aug 30th, 2018 12:46 pm
Coal pile. Photo by Dave Reid.

Coal pile. Photo by Dave Reid.

Less than two years ago I wrote a column dubbing Gov. Scott Walker the “King of Coal’ and documenting how badly Wisconsin trailed other states in the production of solar and wind power.

That was in January 2017, and since then there’s been a veritable revolution, as dramatic declines in the price of solar and wind have pushed power companies, businesses and homeowners to embrace renewable energy. The Madison-based utility Alliant Energy plans to plans to spend $2 billion in the renewable sector between 2016 and 2020, as Lee Bergquist reported for the Journal Sentinel, while We Energies leader Gale Klappa noted that the company will be relying far more on solar, because the price for it has dropped nearly 70 percent in recent years. 

“We’ve hit a tipping point in Wisconsin,” says Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin. “We expect continued increases in renewable energy.”

Wisconsin, however, still lags most states in the region. An analysis of 12 midwestern states by Clean Jobs Midwest shows that Wisconsin ranks third in all categories of clean jobs, mostly because it ranks very high in the category of energy efficiency jobs. But when it comes to the percent of all state jobs in renewable energy, Wisconsin ranks behind all but two of those 12 states. Our state ranks well behind even conservative Republican bulwarks like Kansas, Nebraska and South and North Dakota in the creation of renewable energy jobs.

Another report, back in March, by the Institute for Self-Reliance, ranked the states on how their energy policies helped or hindered local clean energy action and gave Wisconsin a grade of “F”, in 33rd place among the 50 states. “The state has just two policies encouraging local [clean energy] power,” the study found.

In the nearly eight years Walker has served as governor, he has expressed no interest in renewable energy, while garnering huge donations from fossil fuel tycoons the Koch brothers. Wisconsin had begun to attract companies looking to do wind power, but a law passed by Walker and the Republicans in 2011 delayed any development for a year. Members of the state Public Service Commission appointed by Walker have been unfriendly to alternative energy. The PSC approved a plan by We Energies to charge a fee for homeowners installing solar power, which would have discouraged solar installation. 

But the courts overruled the fee and that has helped make it easier to solar power. “We feel there’s more predictability than we’ve had for years in the regulatory environment for solar,” Huebner notes.  

Meanwhile some conservatives in Wisconsin have begun to embrace renewable energy as the prices have declined.  Perhaps that — and the change in direction by the big utilities — explains why the PSC has suddenly become more interested in alternative energy. After reducing funding for the Focus on Energy program that provides rebates to customers installing alternative energy, the PSC did an about face and increased the funding from $4 million per year to $5.5 million annually. 

Perhaps the two biggest coal warriors in Wisconsin were Walker and longtime We Energies CEO Gale Klappa, under whose watch the company is radically changing direction. Late last year the company announced it would shut down its coal-fired plant in Pleasant Prairie while essentially replacing the lost power with new solar farms.

And now We Energies and Alliant Energy have both announced separate pledges with the same goal: to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050. Some of that will be done by switching from coal to cleaner-burning and cheaper gas, but both companies also intend to aggressively pursue alternative energy. 

Besides its ever-lower price, solar is attractive because it’s “an option that also fits well with our summer peak demand curve and with our plan to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” Klappa noted in a speech quoted in the JS story.  

As Daniel Krueger, the company’s senior vice president, told the newspaper: “I think that it is fair to say, going forward, it’s going to be solar, wind, batteries and some natural gas.”

We Energies one-time loyalty to coal was largely explained by investments it made years ago in coal fired plants. But what is there to explain Walker’s hostility to alternative energy other than campaign donations? Wisconsin has been spending more than $12 billion annually to import coal and gas, importing pollution to this state and exporting potential jobs to coal and gas producers while failing to grow alternative energy jobs here. As of 2014, just nine states in America were more dependent on coal than Wisconsin, and those tended to be states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Wyoming — big producers of coal. 

Walker has yet to make any statements saluting the switch by the state’s big utilities — which will have obvious health benefits as emissions are lowered, and help the state economy by giving more business to solar and wind-power companies. 

“It does present a big opportunity for jobs and economic development in the state,” Huebner notes. 

Meanwhile he expects the tension between liberals and conservatives on alternative energy to melt away. “Now you get the environmental benefits of clean energy at no added cost,” he notes. “So there’s not a loser here. So that changes the dynamics entirely. That’s helping de-politicize it.”

But Wisconsin will still be playing catch up for years to come, because most other states are far ahead in embracing the huge opportunity of clean energy. That’s the price we pay for eight years of hostility to the renewable energy industry by the man who declared Wisconsin “open for business.” .

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2 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Why Wisconsin Resists Clean Energy”

  1. Thomas Williams says:

    Having grown up in (to quote Bruce) “conservative Kansas”, it was amazing and exciting to me to travel “home” some 3 years ago and find a large “wind farm” about 18 miles from my home town. Considering that this was located in a county of about 10,000 people which probably has voted Republican since the days of Lincoln, I was also pleased to see the local paper with extensive coverage of how much employment had been generated by the building of these windmills and how maintenance would require some permanent new employment opportunities. It is tragic for the children and adults suffering from emission caused or enhanced disease as well as for the lost economic opportunities which the current occupant of the state house has ignored. Let us pray (as they say in church) that we have now moved on to a new dawn of alternative energy projects which will become simply energy projects.

  2. David Coles says:

    One fundamental problem here is that the utilities, which are effectively monopolies, are private companies with a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profits. Sure, the PSC has regulatory oversight to ensure that the utilities are acting in the public interest, but these are political appointees, influenced by the Governor and others in power.

    Thus, while rooftop solar is the most efficient renewable (produces electricity where it is needed, in contrast to remote, large-scale solar or wind farms), the utilities cannot make money off of it, and thus do not incentivize it. Instead, they dis-incentivize rooftop solar, with exorbitant “facilities” fees (which also dis-incentivize conservation), generation fees, and pathetic buyback rates ($0.042/kWh in the case of We Energies, vs. the $0.131/kWh that they charge customers).

    Fortunately, the day is coming soon when batteries will be good enough that citizens can cut the cord entirely and no longer be dependent on the utilities. Nobody is more aware of this than their CEOs.

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